Pawn Sacrifice (2015)
Directed by Edward Zwick
Remember in 2007 when Tobey Maguire gave us that absolutely batshit version of Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3”? At the height of his fame/infamy in the 1970s, Bobby Fischer acted just like that, but also feverishly paranoid and conspiratorial. So who better to play the disputed world champion chess superstar than guy-who-only-has-an-outside-voice Tobey Maguire? Nobody, that’s who.
Born in Chicago and raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, Robert James “Bobby” Fischer (Tobey Maguire) taught himself to play chess when he was just 6 years old. At 15, he was a grandmaster. At 20, he became the youngest U.S. chess championship. “Pawn Sacrifice” efficiently breezes through these prodigal years, but it’s Fischer in his late 20s that the movie chooses to focus on. In the thick of the Cold War, the USSR considered any advantage over the US a political victory. That included a world champion in chess, which at the time happened to be Soviet juggernaut Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). So secretive government adviser Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to convince the 29-year-old Fischer to compete in the World Championships to take down Spassky in an effort to help win the Cold War. But 23 years of chess has driven Fischer to the brink. He checks his hotel phones for bugs. He makes demands of the chess federation before he agrees to play. He snaps whenever his concentration is broken. Bobby Fischer was sent to Iceland to advance America’s position against the Soviet Union, but his maddening psychosis almost worsened tensions.
Tobey Maguire, despite some questionable career movies over the years, has shown that he can be an elite actor. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in “Brothers,” and even “The Great Gatsby” showed that if he believes in a character he can make it work well. So it’s not all that surprising that Maguire reaches a level in “Pawn Sacrifice” that few actors have reached this year. If I had to nominate five men for Best Actor right now, having seen what I’ve seen so far this year, Maguire would be in that group. He makes chess come alive, which isn’t an easy thing to do. He gets strong support from fellow Golden Globe nominees Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a priest and former chess champ who helps Fischer as he prepares for the World Championship. They provide the logic to Fischer’s lunacy.
With a writing staff that consists of two masters of historical biopics (Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, who wrote “Nixon” and “Ali”) and one Oscar nominee who has a history with thrillers (Steven Knight, who created Netflix’s “Peaky Blinders”), it also shouldn’t come as a shock that “Pawn Sacrifice” has an effectively engaging script. It covers enough of Fischer’s history to understand his present, and while it lasts nearly two hours you don’t feel the time go by. Even long periods of silence, followed only by the click of chess piece to board, don’t bother you. You’re too busy watching a master at work…Fischer, yes, but also Maguire. But “Pawn Sacrifice” also moans a dramatic score from 8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard (“The Dark Knight”) that’s worth looking up on Spotify the next day at work. Plus, Sundance award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”) paints this troubled portrait beautifully. Truly, “Pawn Sacrifice” is a successful collaboration on many fronts. A story about a game of chess, even one with political implications, is not going to draw everyone on board. Could it have been more exciting? Probably. But “Pawn Sacrifice” tells one of history’s most interesting true stories. And Tobey Maguire makes that story come to exhilarating life.